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A guest post by LH Member Hannah Renier, this article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from October 2014.

It is the summer of 1720, and you decide to walk (not ride) around London’s outer edges, keeping woods and trees on your left all the way. Starting from Hyde Park Corner, you head north to the gallows at Tyburn and east along the Oxford Road, proceed around Montague House and Lamb’s Conduit Street, Clerkenwell and Bunhill Fields, and turn south from Shoreditch to pass Whitechapel. The northern shore of the Thames is lined with wharves and smart seafarers’ houses downstream as far as Wapping, where you get into a wherry (that’s why you don’t have a horse: the horse ferry is expensive). You are rowed across to Rotherhithe Church. After a quick detour inland to Allhallows in the Borough you follow the shore upstream to where wharves, mills and cottages peter out near Vauxhall Gardens. Here you take another wherry from the gunmakers’ stairs at Vauxhall back to the horse-ferry terminus at Tothill, near Westminster, and walk up to Pall Mall and back to Hyde Park Corner. There have been woods and fields, or marshes, on your left all the way; and buildings – newish terraces on the northern edge, and a largely post-Fire jumble in the East and south – on your right.

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The Thames at Horseferry, with Lambeth Palace and a Distant View of the City, London, by Jan Greffier, c1710.

London was four miles long and a mile and a half wide, with a population of around 400,000. It was not easy for horses: there were long slopes up from the foreshore to Covent Garden, Mayfair was hilly, the Fleet basin was treacherously steep on both sides and there were sharp climbs up from the river north of London Bridge. Loads were unlimited, laws against cruelty unenforced, and ignorant farriery ubiquitous. Most peripatetic farriers, recognisable by blue cross-belts with gold horse-shoes on, followed Blundevill’s bad instructions from 130 years ago, and over-pared hooves and heavy-shod them with agonising results.

The summer of 1720 was the height of the boom. South Sea Company stock was giddily high and fortunes were borrowed to buy it. The rich rode in the Park, flirted in private gardens and stepped down from coaches into pleasant squares; some rode out to Ascot where the late Queen Anne had begun a tradition of summer horse-racing, now continued by the German King George.

Back in London were crowds of shortish humans, dodging nervously over cobbles between hackneys and carriages and drays pulled by horses of uncertain temper that might weigh half a ton. Between every few houses were slippery side turns down to cobbled yards; certain streets were edged by ‘kennels’ – drains bridged by culverts; barrels, on ropes, were lowered into gaping cellars. Markets were crowded with impatient horses and scavenging dogs, streets strewn with spilled hay, and the crossing sweeper rarely got to the latest pile of dung fast enough. The smell of manure was omnipresent. Every yard, mews and inn had its dunghill. And this chaos played out against the roar of iron-bound wheels and iron-shod hooves on cobblestone.

Men with money rode their own horses in town, and rich women who happened to be frail or pregnant could be taken by carriage and four, kept at the town house’s stables; although riding ‘on the stones’ in the middle of town, in a heavy creaking vehicle without suspension, was certainly uncomfortable.

Horses, of course, had to put up with people: yelling drivers, bawling street sellers, wailing children, a din compounded in unpleasantness by a stench of sweaty, unwashed wool, for laundry water usually had to be carried from pumps in the street or delivered by barrel. London had thousands of cess-pits, growing obnoxious before they were emptied (the slurry being carted through the streets at night for eventual sale as fertiliser). And human behaviour was unpredictable. John Gay saw it all, in his walks about London.

The lashing Whip resounds, the Horses strain,
And Blood in anguish bursts the swelling vein.
Oh barb’rous Men, your cruel Breasts asswage,
Why vent ye on the gen’rous Steed your rage?

The craze for gin meant inhibitions were released, anger expressed in blows, animals neglected and above all, horses were stolen. A good horse, for quick sale at Smithfield, could fetch £10 at a time when thieves could look forward to getting drunk for a penny and dead drunk for tuppence, pennies being 240 to the pound.

London’s working horses, like their owners, were crowded into cramped accommodation. If they were ever taken out to the fields of Marylebone or Brompton, they could graze on rich grassy meadows dotted with foxgloves and lady’s slipper, celandine and clover. Good fortune of this kind attended royal horses and cavalry horses, but plenty of draught animals toiled in the streets from one year’s end to the next. As to grazing opportunities south of the river, they had to get there first and either way cost a fare or a toll. The horse ferry was quicker than the journey across London Bridge, but picking your way through a cramped dark alley between shops and pedestrians could take an hour. London Bridge was a restraint on trade. Parliament heard repeated demands for a new bridge, but the Archbishop of Canterbury, who profited from the horse ferry at Lambeth, the Watermen, and the Bridgewardens, were solidly opposed.

In the autumn of 1720 the rich got a nasty surprise. The Government, the King, and every other potential investor discovered that the South Sea Company had been a Bubble. It burst, leaving them with debt.

Fine horses were suddenly for sale. Many were stabled on the great estates outside London, but if you were a suddenly impecunious aristo, in town, who chose to ride your best horse at Hyde Park Corner, you might get an offer from a friend.

The great age of horse breeding for racing, when today’s at thoroughbred bloodlines were sired by three imported stallions, was in its heyday. In 1720 the Byerley Turk had recently died, the Godolphin Arabian was yet to be born, but the Darley Arabian was very much alive. Rich men were impassioned by horses as status symbols as never before. The King had imported hundreds of cream Hanoverians, which were much admired. Everyone who was anyone took riding lessons; there were riding houses, with training circuses or even amphitheatres, in Riding House Street and down alleys all over town. Captain Foubert and his family had been running one for years.

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The Darley Arabian, after John Wootton.

If Hyde Park Corner and an exchange between friends was not to be, the South Sea Bubble debtor would sell his horse, or his team of horses and maybe even the carriage he kept in town in an inn yard to a dealer, through an auctioneer like Mr Heath or Mr Osmer or Mr Beevor in St Martin’s Lane – or – and it did happen – on a Friday at Smithfield.

This was of course the start of a long downhill run to decrepitude. A champion horse kept at stud in retirement from the racecourse could easily, like the Godolphin Arabian later, live for thirty years. Or like most others it could, in changing hands, go from racehorse to country hack to carriage horse to carter’s horse in a decade or less. Such a horse might pull a heavy hackney carriage all day or join the team kept by a carter such as Mr Pickford and be sent back and forth along a section of the Great North Road. It was tolled, but still a rough surface. Most cartage horses would die of exhaustion before they were fifteen, for their the lives were fraught with sprains, skin diseases, eye infections, dental deformation and ailments generally arising from inferior care, stress and sometimes cruelty.

Those farriers who took their job seriously did mean well. They were at least as expert as doctors – probably more. While there were inhibitions about cutting human bodies up (and only six years later a royal doctor would ‘witness’ Mary Tofts giving birth to rabbits), horse anatomy had been studied for at least a thousand years. The expertise of a good farrier came mostly from observation of gait and wind and mouth. He dealt with horses daily – all farriers were shoeing smiths – and could tell when something was wrong.

Well informed owners knew that many equine ailments could be traced to poor shoeing. Diagnosis was sometimes perceptive but treatment was usually wishful thinking. The Farrier’s Dispensatory by William Gibson was a popular resource. The author earnestly explained that essential off the-shelf remedies were herbal – leaves, roots, seeds, grains, gums, barks and so on – animal, and mineral. Listing them all, he helpfully suggested cheap alternatives for less valuable horses. Herbs could be gathered or bought. Things like snakeweed and allspice were imported from the Americas or the Indies, then distilled, infused, or administered as balls (pills)or powders, suppositories or plasters. Minerals included borax, arsenic for poultices, petroleum, vitriol, antimony – an excellent all round tonic – and lead, silver, quicksilver, coral and chalk and brimstone. Animal derivatives included dog turd (to reduce inflammation), bear’s grease (a ‘ripener’ to relieve pain), beetles, the anal sac or some other stinking bit of the back end of a beaver (an import, very expensive, but good for the staggers); cow-dung wrapped onto stiff legs; cuttlebone powder, blown into the eyes; frogspawn; pickled herrings or bacon rind applied to wounds, and hoglice (woodlice), a clutch of which, ground into balls with flour, ‘open all manner of obstructions’ and would prevent blindness. Tiny puppies also could be cut open and ‘applied to the part’.

Gibson rejected some older remedies – toads, and fox lungs – although earthworm oil (made by boiling worms in wine) was always useful. Well-meaning as all this was, it does seem that for many horses neglect must have been the better option.

As a postscript to the horrified, please note that an Annals of Improbable Research Ig Award, 2014, has been awarded to a group of scientists who proved that plugs made of bacon, inserted into a human nose, are extraordinarily effective in stopping nosebleeds.

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A guest review by LH member Laurence Scales, of the new Channel 5 series. 

Feeling a bit lost at present on Saturday nights without a Swedish murder to mull over I turned to Channel 5 and its series, ‘How the Victorians Built Britain’, fronted by Michael Buerk The viewer is invited to bask in the glow of beautifully restored steam engines, magnificent dams and tiled Turkish baths. Land of Hope and Glory is playing in my head even if you cannot hear it. Yes, Victorians were wonderful in many ways. We should all know, of course, that they were frightful in many others. Victorian novelist Thomas Hughes invented ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and we are definitely wearing them here.

It may be that a few more things have been restored to their original glory today, but I doubt that otherwise this series would stand much comparison with a repeat of Adam Hart-Davis’s ‘What the Victorians Did for Us’ on the BBC in 2000. (His book is still obtainable.) This Channel 5 series is too sugary and ought to be paired with the health warning of another BBC series, from 2013, ‘Hidden Killers: The Victorian Home’, not just because it adds healthy roughage to the factual diet but because it gives perspective: mistakes were made in the process of building our world.

I knew that I would find myself shouting at the screen. But I did not shout myself hoarse. Michael Buerk is filmed interviewing bona fide experts but these wise heads are topped and tailed with some careless talk. It was said last week that Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers swept all that human ordure away to be treated in east London. Bazalgette did nothing of the sort. He just poured the noxious waste into the river there. He could do nothing else until treatment was invented. This week it was power stations. The first large scale power station was in Newcastle, apparently. (And they did not mean William Armstrong’s personal hydro electric generator at Cragside.) I wondered where they got that idea from. I checked. It turns out that Newcastle had the first power station with turbo alternators. You can easily change a fact into fallacy by losing a few words at the end of a sentence!

The production is easy on the eye and might serve to tempt people out to visit their local heritage and find out more. (As a part of that local heritage, I hope so!) Whatever the evils of the more sanctimonious or avaricious Victorians, the great thing is that their cavernous cisterns, mighty pistons and vaulting viaducts now belong to all of us, whether we were born in Somalia or Stevenage.

Laurence Scales

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16156Book review by LH Member George Goodwin.
The Civil War in London by Robin Rowles
Pen & Sword, £12.99 152pp

As a reviewer it is well to declare an interest. Robin Rowles is both an active member of London Historians and a highly-qualified guide with a love of London’s history that easily communicates itself in conversation, as it did to me when we talked some months ago about the Civil War in London both as a topic in itself and as the subject of this book. So I can be forgiven for approaching the book with rose-tinted glasses.

Robin takes a somewhat old-fashioned approach and the book is none the worse for that. He is impeccable in the way that he credits his sources and the views of his fellow historians, and he ensures that those with only a limited understanding of the causes of the English Civil War have these background factors explained. He then tackles his subject thematically. I have one quibble with the structure of the book, addressed to its editor rather than its author, which is that it might have been better to have had some part of the penultimate chapter ‘London’s brave boys: the trained bands and the defence of London’ as the opening salvo.

There may not have been any fighting in London itself, but that was partly due to the impressive defensive measures taken by the City of London’s Common Council and to the role of the Trained Bands in repulsing the King’s army at the Battle of Turnham Green, then some miles to the west of the twin cities of Westminster and London. As Robin points out, the London units and their extremely effective commander Philip Skippon also played an exceptionally important role in the wider Civil War.

As to the meat of the book, Robin has a real insight into how the City was able to take on much of the machinery of national administration, with its networks of committees in some ways akin to those that would operate in Paris during the French Revolution. Their taking on this role being natural, due to the City’s long-established institutions and the ability of its governing Common Council to give overall direction.

The centuries-old financial importance of the City of London to the Monarchy was symbolised by the longstanding pre-coronation tradition of the monarch being escorted to the Tower through the City gates by the scarlet-clad Mayor and Aldermen of London. With a detailed knowledge of its Livery Companies, Robin shows how the Parliamentarians were able to utilise the City’s long-established means of financing the monarchy in order to back its citizen enemies. He also demonstrates how this change of loyalty had been made a great deal easier through King Charles’s assault on the City’s privileges during the ‘Eleven Years’ Tyranny’ not least through the Crown’s confiscation of the City’s Ulster plantation.

There are some intriguing details in the book to demonstrate that the City was far from universally solid in its support of Parliament, showing that some moderate Royalists were elected as Mayors during the mid-1640s before Charles’ resumption of hostilities in 1648 cut the ground from their feet, that is before Parliament was itself superseded by the army, with Skippon later becoming Cromwell’s Major General for the London area. The exceptional importance of religion in directing men towards either King or Parliament is affirmed and the means by which the Committee for Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry set about their task are well described. Women also have their moments: not least the 1643 march on Parliament by City women, with their demonstration against wartime taxation and higher food prices being met not by the MPs, who were taking cover inside, but by Dragoons, with the fatal consequences persuading seven peers to desert to the King.

Above all, the book takes you through the streets of the City and is good preparation for accompanying Robin on one of his London Civil War walks, which he lists with those on Sherlock Holmes and others on http://www.strollintime.co.uk/walks.htm


George Goodwin FRHistS is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father.

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del200I was surprised and saddened to hear only yesterday that Derek ‘Del’ Mandel, aka the Cockney Minstrel, had passed away earlier this year on St George’s Day.

As many readers know, our monthly meet-up pub is the historic Hoop and Grapes in Farringdon Street. Every year, early November, after the Lord Mayor’s Show, Del would turn up and lead a proper cockney-style singalong, in his pearly king garb. He’d start fairly low key with both well-known and obscure standards as well as soldier ballads. Before each song he explained the story behind it, so we all got educated into the bargain.

Del’s set was immense, typically lasting well over three hours. Indeed, Springsteen-esque. He invested heart and soul and his audience responded lustily. As we punters became more refreshed, our voices became louder and louder. By the end of the afternoon, I swear the tiles on the roof were rattling.

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Thank-you Del, wherever you are. We’ll never forget you.


Del will be remembered in a special sesh at the Hoop and Grapes after the Lord Mayor’s Show this year, 10 November.

Here is a clip of Del doing the Barrow Boy Song, on 11 November 2016.

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A guest post by LH Member Prof Sheila Cavanagh.

Prior to 2011, I did not know that the City of London Livery Companies existed. I am now a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Educators and have exercised my statutory right to herd sheep across London Bridge.  Since then London Historians have made a number of memorable visits to Livery Halls and having been fortunate enough to have talks on the subject by fellow member Paul Jagger, I would like to offer a few thoughts regarding this venerable tradition from the perspective of someone who has been introduced to these customs and building fairly late.

My first encounter with the Livery Companies came when I was invited to participate in the celebrations and the luncheons surrounding the Worshipful Company of Poulters Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race outside the Guildhall.  Nothing in my previous experience prepared me for this energetic occasion, where crowds of people in elaborate costumes ran (sometimes in high heels) up and down the course, carrying a skillet containing a pancake that appeared to have been made of concrete. The ceremonial trappings of the occasion were unescapable, as the various Livery Companies offered their distinctive contributions to the event. The Poulters provided eggs, the Gunmakers supplied the starting pistol, the Ironmongers brought the skillets, and various other Companies shared varied skills and items associated with their trades.  The event was memorable, particularly for the graciousness of the crowd, and also at the luncheon that followed the main event. While one hopes that no one ate the remarkably resilient pancakes repeatedly carried across the Guildhall yard, the feast that followed the Race was convivial and delicious.

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Lord Mayor Andrew Parmley (2016-17) rather tentatively showing how it’s done. Image: Worshipful Company of Poulters.

After attending a couple of more Livery events and visiting some historic Livery Halls, I decided to pursue membership myself, although I felt more comfortable following my own profession into the fairly recently chartered Worshipful Company of Educators rather than investigating one of the more established Companies associated with trades far out of my realm of expertise. I also wanted to demonstrate that I had taken seriously the charge associated with my tenure as the Fulbright/Global Shakespeare Centre Distinguished Chair, which urged me to become involved in a range of local activities and organisations during my time in England (the London Historians obviously take pride of place in this endeavour).  Consistently, the groups gathered for Livery functions have been welcoming and interesting.

Recently, for example, I attended a Shrieval Luncheon hosted by the Honorable Company of Master Mariners on HMS Wellington to mark the 2018 election of Sheriffs.  As usual, I was surrounded by a fascinating and congenial group of people, this time representing a range of maritime related professions. I had expected to be relegated to a side table for this event (the equivalent of what Americans call “the Children’s Table” at holiday gatherings). Instead, I ended up seated in the company of The Lord Mountevans, 2015’s Lord Mayor of London and the current Master of the Honorable Company of Master Mariners, Captain R.B.Booth MNI. While this seating arrangement was not or anticipated, it fits well within my experience of the Livery Companies.  When LH Member Tina Baxter and myself herded sheep across London Bridge, for example, I found myself assigned to the same group of sheepherders as prominent actor and director Mark Rylance. As the London Historians who have visited Livery Company Halls in conjunction with our delightful LH comrades know, these occasions are always memorable. From the Barber Surgeons Hall, to the Tallow Chandlers, the Goldsmiths, and the other Halls visited, and to the current exhibition at the Guildhall Library highlighting the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers, the City of London Livery Companies have a great deal of history to share as they help create the history of the City that is to come. I don’t always understand all the traditions associated with the them, but I look forward to learning more from this group of charitable professionals so central to the City of London.

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Tylers and Bricklayers Company display at Guildhall Library, 2018.

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Our visit to Apothecaries’ Hall, 2018.

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Outside Barber Surgeons’ Hall after our visit, 2018.

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This article, by London Historians member Laurence Scales, first appeared in our monthly members’ newsletter from April 2018. 

I recently had my hand on some squares of black silk lace, made by young girls of Bridgenorth in 1774, the residents of a workhouse. This was over fifty years before Sir Edwin Chadwick’s ‘reforms’ and some workhouses were enlightened. Training girls to make lace could save them from destitution.

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Black Silk Lace, 1774.

A few months ago I was invited by the Historian in Residence at the Royal Society of Arts (Royal since 1908), to help catalogue some papers. I cannot claim that they are new discoveries, just that they are little seen. No one has had the time to make the list, until now. So, once a week I commute into the 18th century to make more accessible for future researchers this stash of cultural heritage.

The RSA started in Rawthmell’s coffee house, Covent Garden, in 1754. Since 1774 it has lived in a fine Adam building nearby, now awkwardly equipped with lifts and network cables, and with one or two steps scattered in odd places as if to catch the unwary. The RSA, full name the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (n.b. it has not much to do with art), is not to be confused with the famous scientific Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, nor the Royal Academy of Arts, nor yet the Royal Institution. Dr Johnson was a member of the Society of Arts, as was Benjamin Franklin, William Wilberforce and Karl Marx – and a few other members will make an appearance shortly.

Turnip rooted cabbages, starting a forest from acorns, new recipes for manures, hats made of wood shavings to rival those from Leghorn, cobalt glazes, carrot marmalade, medicinal rhubarb, whale harpoons, and zebra wood from the Mosquito Shore – these all became a focus for the Society of Arts in its first 50 years. It was a period just before progress began to be clearly identified with science, so prizes were awarded for enlightened and patriotic efforts to fill particular wants or shortages in agriculture, colonies and trade, manufacture, chemistry, mechanics and ‘polite arts’. ‘Art’ used to cover all the other things in the list, not just drawing and sculpture. There were also bounties awarded for unsolicited worthy efforts such as lace making at Bridgenorth.

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The ‘Great Room’ of the RSA as depicted c.1810. It remains, complete with allegorical paintings by Sir James Barry.

I see some intriguing items in a day – mostly letters, but sometimes there is drawing, or an ear of wheat, or a square of black silk lace – an exhibition in microcosm, in fact. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a later initiative by this Society, by the way.

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Drawing included with a letter about harpoons, presumably just for the joy of it, in 1777.

It may seem I have found a rather out-of-the-way interest at the RSA. Not so. That recipe for carrot marmalade was eventually copied to Captain Cook at Deptford to try out for a long voyage and avoid scurvy. But it turned out that he did not like it and watered his crew with pine beer instead.

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A Simple Diagram, Georgian Style. Yoke for Ploughing with Oxen Instead of Horses.

And who cares about acorns? Well, the Royal Navy did for a start. And people needed firewood. And then there was new interest in smelting. By 1775 England was going bald. Over 50 years or so the RSA prompted the planting of 50 million trees. (It is believed that the great storm of 1987 only toppled 15 million trees.) While deforestation was one concern, others were already starting to worry about pollution and occupational diseases, and to come up with remedies.

Those awarding the prizes at the Society often did not see the thing they were rewarding. It was a strangely egalitarian society in the sense that the Earl of Winterton, for example, to be considered for his medal had to get his illiterate farm hand (‘X, his mark’) to sign a certificate attesting to the fact that he really did plant all those acorns that the Earl claimed. Sometimes it was the other way round, the farm hand invented something and had to get his boss to testify to its efficacy – the fumigating bellows for example, against ravening caterpillars, tried out in the royal gardens at Kew.

Correspondence about manure and rhubarb criss-crossed the land, long before the penny post. The postal service was very good, even if the best address someone could give was the wagon stopping outside the Bear and Ragged Staff at Smithfield – or at the Artichoke, Radcliffe Highway.

Another member or fellow of the Society was John Howard, the first person ever to be described as a philanthropist. The Howard League for Penal Reform is a name you hear in the news sometimes. But he did not found it. It is named in his honour. John Howard was a landowner of Bedfordshire, interested in new strains of wheat. ‘I often eat some good puddings made of that Turkey wheat,’ he said in a letter to the Society in 1772.

In 1773, when he was aged 52, he suddenly began an obsessive round of visits to hundreds of prisons. Having been appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire he took the job sufficiently seriously (unlike some) that he visited his local jail, and was horrified to find that the only pay received by the jailer had to be found by the prisoners. And many of the prisoners were there because of their debts! It was the same everywhere else in England. Howard then devoted himself to improving prisons for the next 17 years until he died of typhus, from poking his nose into a prison in the Ukraine. Holland produced the best prisons, but at least Britain produced John Howard.

His modest Bloomsbury home rightly wears a blue plaque, the heritage scheme started by the Society in 1866. That scheme has now landed with English Heritage, and imitators. The RSA starts things and then hands them on.

Did the Society find a space for women? Yes. An intriguing 18th century correspondent was Ann Williams, post mistress of Gravesend who hatched silkworms in her dead letter pigeon hole, and reared them in a hatbox, sometimes referring to her little creepy crawlies as ‘reptiles’ with the imprecision of the time. The Society awarded her 20 guineas (equivalent to several thousand pounds today). She wrote, ‘I shall ever think it the happiest period of my life.’

The RSA continues good work. I risk sounding like a commercial. But my real point is that I always come away from the RSA with a feeling of optimism about what people are capable of, even those who are not superhuman. Georgian life was a hard grind, and often cut short. Here was a bunch of rich Georgians rewarding a bunch of usually less well-off people for doing something outside their usual toil, public spirited, worthwhile, perhaps risky, often something as little as planting experimentally a few rows of medicinal rhubarb. Not selling it, mind – just planting it to see if it would grow, for a better future. That spirit is real cultural heritage.

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Another happy ending, from 1768.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in offbeat historical walking tours focusing on intriguing and amusing tales of discovery, invention and intelligence. He is a volunteer working at the Royal Institution for which he has devised walking tours, and also guides walks and tunnel tours for the London Canal Museum. Welcoming residents and visitors who want to look beyond the main London attractions he reveals a wealth of lesser known historic sites and offers a double-take on some famous ones.
Please contact Laurence via his web site.

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Sopwith Camel, Hawker Hurricane, Hawker Hunter, Sea Harrier.

As a small contribution to #RAF100, I’d like to remember in particular a man who – while never in the RAF himself – did build tens of thousands of their warplanes. Boy, did he build them. That man was Sir Thomas Sopwith (1888 – 1989). Remembered mainly for the aeroplane that bore his name – the Camel – Sopwith also gave us many other famous fighter planes, including the Hurricane, the Hawker Hunter and, believe it or not, he was also involved in the Sea Harrier, some 60 years after World War One. In other words, he was building aircraft from barely ten years after the Wright brothers up to a model which is still in use by the US Marines today, over a century of in-service fighter planes. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that Sopwith himself lived to be 101.

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Thomas Sopwith c1911

Thomas Sopwith, a Londoner, was born in Kensington in 1888. Although his father died in a shooting accident when Sopwith was a boy, he left the family well-off. In his twenties, young Tom enthusiastically embraced the pursuits of adventurers of his standing: ballooning, motor racing, ocean yachting and flying. He was the 31st British pilot to gain his licence. He was also fiercely competitive, competing in and winning speed and endurance competitions. By 1914 he was building aircraft from a small factory in Kingston in addition to running his flying school since 1912. By the end of the war the Sopwith Aviation Company had manufactured 18,000 warplanes in dozens of variants, but most famously the Camel, nemesis of Baron von Richthofen.

He subsequently in the early 1920s started a new company with his Australian collaborator and test pilot, the appropriately named Harry Hawker. Unfortunately Hawker died soon afterwards in a flying accident but Sopwith took the company forward from its HQ at Brooklands, designing the Hurricane unprompted and before the government realised the looming need for such a fighter. Until 1963, under Sopwith’s leadership, 26,800 aircraft of fifty-two different types flowed from the production lines of Hawkers and its associated companies.

Sopwith remained on the board of the Hawker Siddeley Group until 1988. Knighted in 1953, Sir Thomas Sopwith’s biggest regret was failing to win the America’s Cup in 1934. What a life!


Thomas Sopwith on Wikipedia.
Thomas Sopwith Documentary (1984) on YouTube (30 mins: marvellous!).

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